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As Elections Near, Argentina’s Electoral Systems Are Under Scrutiny, Again

After calls of electoral fraud in Congo, we look at Argentina's voting processes

By | [email protected] | January 25, 2019 3:32pm

43549722_303Officals stand next to a voting machine on election day in the Congo.
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Last week, news broke of electoral fraud in the recent presidential elections in the Congo. Subsequently, a report surfaced by think tank The Sentry which reported that the new electronic voting machines used in that same election in Congo were initially developed for use in the 2017 Argentine federal elections.

These voting machines were a part of an electoral reform proposal by the Macri administration, which was voted down by the Senate last year. In fact, as Pagina/12 reported, these voting machines had indeed been created specifically for the 2017 Argentine elections. The machines were even used in Congo with tutorials in Spanish and featuring Argentine candidates as examples.

In June 2016, the government introduced a bill proposing voting machines with both hardware and software produced by South Korean company Miru. However, due to a Senate demonstration of vulnerabilities in the technology by Argentine-based computer programmer Javier Smaldone and security expert Alfredo Ortega, as well as an influential social media campaign (#MurióElVotoElectrónico), the electoral reform bill was struck down.

Officals stand next to a voting machine on election day in the Congo.

The same South Korean company then proposed its voting machines for the December 2018 elections in Congo, which ended up being used. Several Argentine information security specialists, including Poder Ciudadano, have voiced their support for civil groups who fought the electronic voting bill in Congo.

(Note: the technology proposed here differs from that of electronic voting used in provinces, such as Buenos Aires and Salta, among others. Most provinces with electronic voting use technology developed by Argentine company Vot.ar.)

In moments like this, we can feel the entire country shudder. The fear of election corruption runs rampant in the nightmares of democracies across the world, but here it’s a little too close for comfort, especially considering that practically all elections are mired down by fraud allegations. We ask ourselves, then, how safe is our election data, really? What happens to Argentine voter data during elections, and how do these processes work now protect democracy and prevent electoral fraud?

To answer this, we’ll take you through the journey of a ballot from the time you vote to when the final results are tabulated. Stay with us.

So, it’s voting day (woo hoo, democracy!) and you head to your local voting place in public schools across the country. You wait in line. You select your ballot, place it in the envelope, and stuff it in the box. Then what? When polls close, election officials compile all the votes from each polling station into one document, by hand. Each of those documents from each of these polling stations is then mailed to one of 400 Correo Argentino transmission centers in the country. At each of those centers, the documents are received, scanned, and uploaded to the national computer system, which completes the official vote tabulation.

This means there is an immense amount of trust in Correo Argentino, as the enterprise that controls first the movement of the votes from the polling stations to transmission centers, and then the uploading of votes to a computer system for a final count. Criticism of our electoral process often starts with that first step. Manually transporting documents hundreds of kilometers that contain a written record of all votes cast in federal elections on the day of the election does present security risks, or has argued Macri and his government.

A Correo Argentina envelope used to transmit voter data on election day.

Macri has presented several plans for electoral reform to the legislature, to no avail. Most recently, the Cambiemos caucus has proposed a more homogenized system, wherein they eliminate transmission centers and equip each polling station to scan and upload data themselves, by contracting national telecommunications company ARSAT. This would eliminate the risk of interruption and corruption of data en route from the polling stations to the transmission centers. It also mitigates the effects of having rural votes take longer to travel to transmission centers to be processed, since the centers are located based on population density.

For example, Cambiemos, with a lot of urban support, started out election night both in 2015 and 2017 with an advantage, which can affect the perception of voting as time progresses. If voters hear that a party they don’t support is winning, they may be less likely to go out and vote later in the evening. If all polling stations are able to report simultaneously, there is no travel time to contend with and therefore no differential effect on urban and rural voters.

Macri has tried time and again during his mandate to pass electoral reform. But why go through the effort? What’s the problem with the way we vote? Firstly, the ballot system is expensive and allows more easily for partisan interference. As anyone eligible to vote knows, in Argentina there are separate ballots for each candidate, and when voting, one selects the ballot, places it in an envelope, and drops it in a voting box.

Examples of ballots used in 2015 federal elections.

However, the existence of different ballots for differing parties and candidates has resulted in allegations of theft, destruction, or otherwise tampering with the ballots of one party by another. This is because, quite simply, if there are no ballots available to represent the opposition, it isn’t possible to vote for them (or rather, it’s more difficult).

This results in both parties spending wild amounts of money to print far more ballots than there are eligible voters in Argentina, as insurance against potential theft or destruction. Similarly, it’s possible to interfere with the printing of ballots, and render large quantities inadmissible through intentional printer error. With single ballots (wherein a voter marks which candidate they prefer on one ballot), no party has incentive to destroy or steal ballots, because they’ve got skin in the game on that piece of paper too.

Secondly, fiscales, appointed officials who oversee administration on election day, are supposed to act as a method of controlling elections and monitoring for potential fraud or partisan interference on the ground, at the polls. They oversee each election table during the day, watch the initial counting of votes once polls close, and also have the power to ask to investigate “el cuarto oscuro” (the booth where people vote in secret) as well as any given ballot.

Election workers organize ballots in Corrientes.

There is no power check on fiscales on election day, so it is possible for them to turn a blind eye in relation to parties they support. This could lead to vote interference, such as fabricating or magnifying irregularities on ballots of certain parties, and not others. In a quote from La Nacion, Argentine investigator Augustín Casas said, “Exactly what fiscales do on the day of the election is pure speculation. We can’t prove it.”

As much as it seems electronic voting could be the solution to electoral reform, the dispute over election results in Congo, and the resulting connection to Macri’s own reform proposal, offers an alternative argument, which is that the answer is more complex than that.

On one hand, The Financial Times suggests data from electronic voting machines is what lead to the preservation of legitimate voter data in the Congo, and could further lead to definitive proof that the election was fraudulent. On the other hand, allegations of fraud from Congolese opposition accuse interference from the machines themselves.

In place of voting machines, perhaps the solution to electoral reform is, quite simply, a system that makes it harder to commit fraud. Single ballot voting, increased fiscal background checks, partisan auditors, and personalized ballots are all proven ways of reducing the likelihood of fraud in elections, as well as the already proposed limitations on physically moving data on election day.

When we head to the ballot boxes this October, there will be a lot of discussion surrounding the days and weeks leading up; the candidates, the speeches, the drama, the intrigue. But, as did Javier Smaldone and Alfredo Ortega in 2016 when they presented findings on flawed voting machines, we’ll also maintain attention through election night, on how we voted, what happens to our votes, and how exactly our votes will transform into our next president.